By: Ellary TuckerWilliams, Inter-Mountain Western States Coordinator
It was the dog days of summer in southern Alabama and the stench hit me in the face like a bee to the teeth at 80 mph on the back of a motorcycle. A combination of hot, wet dumpster with a dash of decaying vegetation and hint of urine filled my nostrils. The source of the stench was a very angry, large, solitary wild boar caught in a corral trap. I watched as the landowner calmly took aim with his rifle and fired off a single round that hit the boar square between the eyes. Death was instantaneous. As far as the landowner was concerned, there was one less pig on his property tearing up roads, food plots, hay fields, and running off deer and turkey. Just another day in the life of a southern landowner. Thus, was my induction to the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences master’s program to study wild pig management.
Wild pigs were originally introduced to the United States in the 1500’s by European explorers, and as of 2018, have been confirmed in approximately 33 states by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS). As an invasive species, wild pigs threaten public health and cause massive amounts of economic and ecological damage. From a public health perspective, wild pigs carry a variety of diseases including swine brucellosis, pseudorabies, and have been documented to contaminate freshwater sources with E. coli through wallowing activities. Economically, current research attributes approximately $2.5 billion lost annually to wild pig impact across the country. Ecologically, wild pigs have been found to hinder ecosystem services and negatively impact water sources, plants, wildlife communities (both game and non-game) and their habitat.
Contrary to popular belief, hunting as a solitary management tool is ineffective at reducing large and established wild pig populations. Trapping is currently considered to be the most effective management tool by wildlife managers and wildlife biologists. However, trapping can be costly, extremely time consuming, and notoriously easy to screw up. The cold hard truth is that the average person does not hunt or trap wild pigs hard enough or long enough to have lasting, population level impacts. To add to the management conundrum, both hunting and trapping are the most utilized forms of wild pig management.
Unfortunately, hunters get a bad reputation for being the reason behind the wild pig epidemic. While this is partially correct, the actions and options of a vocal minority are over-representing that of the majority. When wild pigs are intentionally released into new areas, it is usually at the hand of an overzealous hunter wanting to increase hunting opportunities, and who is naïve to the consequences of their actions. This, however, is not representative of the entire hunting community and creates a perception among policymakers and wildlife managers that wild pigs are a widely desired species. In truth, the majority of hunters view wild pigs as detrimental to their property, property value, and preferred game species, like deer, turkey and quail. More often than not, hunters will shoot wild pigs as a form of management, not for sport. A good wild pig is a dead wild pig, in my opinion.
So, what is there left to do in the face of one of the most detrimental invasive mammal species to ever be introduced to our great country?
Researchers and managers have begun investigating the use of two bait-based toxicants, warfarin and sodium nitrite, in an effort to develop a lethal, time-efficient, cost-effective, and humane tool to drastically reduce wild pig populations on a broad scale. Warfarin, when sufficient quantities are ingested, causes internal hemorrhaging which results in death. Sodium nitrite on the other hand, reduces the ability of blood cells to carry oxygen, resulting in death by depriving tissue of adequate oxygen supply. An important note to make is that during these efficacy trials, humaneness is of top concern among researchers in developing a viable and publicly acceptable toxicant for use in wild pig management.
Sodium nitrite is currently undergoing field trials in Texas and Alabama by the USDA APHIS, and has not yet received EPA approval for use in wild pig management. Comparatively, the Warfarin-based bait received EPA approval in 2017. Texas was the only state to legalize its use, but due to threats of litigation from stakeholders, the product’s registration was withdrawn and subsequently is no longer available for use within the state.
Folks who are witnessing first-hand the impact wild pigs are having on their livelihoods, land, and wildlife are frustrated, and understandably so. Thus, toxicants are the answer to all of our wild pig problems, right? Unfortunately, the solution is not that simple.
So, what’s the hold up?
Any time the possibility of putting a toxic chemical on the landscape is discussed, serious concerns are raised regarding the environmental and human health impacts, as well as the impact on non-target wildlife species. Particularly in areas with endangered species, landowners and managers face uncertainty about who would be considered liable if a threatened or endangered species were to be impacted by the wild pig toxic bait. Additionally, as was demonstrated in Texas, stakeholder perspectives and influence have the power to determine the success or failure of a toxicant as a wild pig management tool.
Conflicting opinions within the hunting community, combined with the potential for unforeseen impacts, stakeholder pushback, and legal questions, make fish and game commissioners and policymakers apprehensive when people start talking about using toxicants as a management tool. However, wild pig toxicant researchers and managers remain hopeful that a viable toxicant is on the horizon within the next few years.
As an avid hunter with a Master of Science degree in Natural Resources, I understand the struggle each side of this management conflict is facing. However, it is important to acknowledge that a wild pig toxicant is not going to be the silver bullet that eradicates wild pigs. There will always be private landowners who want wild pigs, do not want to risk using a toxicant on their property, or wild pig populations that are in difficult areas to access. Therefore, the likelihood of eradicating each and every one is low. Toxicants should be viewed as yet another tool that has great potential to drastically reduce, not eradicate, wild pig populations on a broad scale and their associated economic, ecological and human health impacts.